How running and riding teach important leadership skills

By Christopher Cudworth

MScottIn the iconic television show The Office we encountered an odd mix of incapable and sometimes unwilling leaders. The character Michael Scott played by Steve Carrell wanted to lead but had no real idea how to do it. His triumphs were often by accident while his earnest attempts at true leadership often went down in flames.

Meanwhile his Type B sidekick Jim Halperin wanted little to do with leadership. He was happier to bust on his arch-nemesis Dwight Schrute whose leadership consisted of massively obvious power grabs accented by an odd mix of family tradition and secret love affairs.

The whole point of the show is that leadership is not always easy. We may criticize our bosses and executives, but the fact that they are attempting to lead is generally deserving of some respect.

Or perhaps not in some circumstance. Thinking back to the early days of a running career that began at age 12, it is easy to recall the wide variety of so-called leadership styles you inevitably encounter in sports such as cross country and track and field.

Faux leaders

The “leaders” we least liked were runners who killed everyone in practice and could not perform well in meets. One such teammate could run 5:20 miles forever it seemed. Our distance runs were often pulled below 6:00 mile pace as a result of his desire to constantly prove his prowess on long training runs. That meant we never fully recovered from races. By mid-season the whole team grew stale because of one runner. Finally we rebelled and told him, in so many words, to f*** off. We let him go. It made no difference to our own training and race performance how fast that guy ran. Our job was to run 5:00 pace in races, not 5:20 miles in training. There is a time and place for speed, but not on every training run.

It’s true in cycling too. There are riders who can hold 20-24 mph forever but when it comes to racing a criterium at 26-28 they are nowhere to be found. That type of leader is not the kind you want to follow if you plan to improve your own racing plans. Even in individual sports like triathlon you have to choose your leaders carefully or risk being pulled out of the training regimen that best suits your plans and your needs.

Control freaks

Another type of faux leader is the Control Freak. These “leaders” are constantly manipulating the group in terms of workout planning. Sometimes the top runners assume this role and refuse to change the overall plan even when the middle or slower runners can’t handle the mix of training doled out by the Control Freak. Good coaches will spot that problem right away. Oregon coach Bill Bowerman was known to prescribe workouts specific to the ability of each runner. A Control Freak can’t handle that kind of individualized freedom or personalized attention. It’s their way or the highway. They’ll even control who gets to take the lead in distance runs or rides. Yes, control freaks often great gains in the short term. Yet they often neglect to appreciate the Big Picture and you lose opportunities for peak performance or new opportunities in the process.

So one must be careful how much you fall in line with the goals of a control freak. Remember their objectives are primarily self-centered. They may sound like they know what they’re doing but that is not always true when it comes to what’s best for you, your team, or your company.

The So-called Friend

Some people view leadership as a tool for gaining friends. The ironic aspect of this type of leadership is that ultimately every person has their own competitive goals and when a so-called friend gets crossed up by someone doing better than them they can get a little testy. When you beat a “friend” there are consequences to live with. They may not call you any more or else get snarky in some other way, posting disparaging comments on social media or talking behind your back. In other words, The So-Called Friend is not so much a friend as a person that needs you to bolster their own ego and sense of power. I often counseled my own children in middle school and high school that it not always your enemies you need to keep an eye on. Even the best friendships can be a power struggle.


So, we’ve covered a few of the negative types of leadership and how they impact others. What does it take to become a positive leader in your running, riding or other pursuits in life?

The Exemplar

To be exemplary is to be strong in your behavior no matter what your actual talent level. Set the example for good conduct by taking on your share of the burden. In cycling that means sharing the pulls especially on windy days. In running that means taking your turn at the head of the group during interval training. Be an example in leadership and do your part even if it means you struggle a bit during the rest of the workout when you are not playing the lead role. That hard work in the wake of stretching yourself builds character. A true leader is willing to sacrifice themselves in training knowing that the long term benefits will come forward when asked to push it in a race. The same thing is true in business. People appreciate those willing to invest in the foundation of any plan even if it means they don’t get to take full credit at the end. Real leaders recognize the value in that.

The Positivist

Being positive is important in all sports. That does not mean being unrealistic or such a cheerleader no one can stand to be around you. It does mean controlling your negative thoughts and doubts. it also means being judicious in what you verbalize, especially in group situations. Be positive and that will reinforce your confidence and put you in a position of natural, organic leadership. People draw strength from those willing to put themselves on the line and lead by positive example.

The Performer

The ultimate expression of leadership is performance. That is, keeping your energies firmly focused on doing your best when it counts.

Sometimes encouragement from others can provide you the inspiration necessary to lead. I recall a teammate coming up to me the week before a race to bolster my confidence. “Cud,” he said. “We need you to step up this weekend. You can do it!”

So simple. Yet so profound. Leadership also comes from expectations, in other words. By supporting others you can be a leader for those who need extra confidence.

The idea (and ideals) of leadership

The whole idea of being a leader is not just to come in first. It is also to build up a team and yourself in ways that provide lasting strength and improvement. That is one of the hardest things to achieve. When you are running or riding your best it is hard to want to slow down and pull along a teammate. But if you simply pull away every day in training that person loses hard. The same thing goes with including someone on a project at work. Respect their contributions and you’ll find yourself respected as a leader in all the right ways.

Again, if you are blessed to have a really great day in a race and exceed your personal record in running, cycling or triathlon, you know what it feels like to lead from the inside out. There is no greater feeling than knowing you have done your best, but great athletes and great leaders know how to handle themselves. Recently at the end of a long run I spotted a piece of paper on the ground and bent down to pick it up. In scrawled handwriting on the back of an envelope it read: “When you lose, say little. When you win say even less.”

I wondered who had written those words, but they capture the spirit of leadership in a number of ways. It doesn’t mean you cannot recount the hardships of training and racing. We all learn from how others describe their perceived efforts. It does mean you should not complain during or after a tough effort. You also should not gloat if you’re feeling great. Remember your day might come when you don’t feel so well. You don’t like to listen to others gloat then either, do you?

People will respect you even more if you abide by these leadership guidelines. The sports of running and riding naturally place you in positions where you are called to lead. So how does that transfer to other aspects of life?

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to transfer that type of organic leadership training is to become aware of leadership principles. Then you can build on the mental strength gained from running and riding and build it into your business acumen, your avocation, volunteer leadership or family life.

5 Great Principles of Leadership

1. Respect the time of others. Being a leader means being organized enough and confident in your plans to get the job or workout done in the time allotted. Nothing says “I don’t respect you” more than wasting the time of others.

2. Respect the contributions of others. Even if you do not agree with how someone does a task or a workout, show respect and deal with your differences in a constructive fashion when there is time to discuss it .

3. Show faith in the group. Even if you are the best athlete or smartest person it is important to show leadership by immersing yourself in the group effort. Otherwise you will find your leadership dissipating even as your supposed status increases.

4. Give praise intelligently. Going overboard in praise is never wise, but praise earned by hard effort is always worth sharing.

5. Balance your strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect. Every leader has flaws. But if you make clear your efforts to improve you will receive support even in those areas where you leadership, raw talent or hard work falls short. Leadership is a process, not a single event. That’s why balance means the most to leadership over the long term.







About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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1 Response to How running and riding teach important leadership skills

  1. The principal at my wife’s school needs to read this! The 5 Principles are universal.

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